what is pegasus spyware

Written by Muhammad Hamza Tanvir 7:39 pm Articles, Current Affairs, Published Content

What Is Pegasus Spyware and How Will It Change Cyberwarfare?

Pegasus spyware is a spying software developed by NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance company. Many governments and political leaders have been accused of using the software to observe their targets’ movements – the targets being prominent journalists and important political figures like the current prime ministers of Pakistan, Egypt, and Morocco. Earlier versions used a simple text message to prompt the installation of the malware on the targeted device. The latest versions are able to automatically install it by simply calling the targeted phone.
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Mr Muhammad Hamza Tanvir graduated from COMSATS University. He has a keen interest in international relations and regional politics.

For the past few weeks, the world is seeing news stories about Pegasus spyware that was developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance company. The news rose eyebrows all around the world as the malware has been used by different groups and authoritarian regimes to spy on activists, journalists, political opponents, and government officials of rival countries.

Governments around the world are facing roiling allegations of having used the Israeli-made software against their opponents. Some of the revelations have proved to be highly shocking, with the allegations that even updated smartphones can be hacked with a single text message, and reports that two women close to the assassinated journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, were among those that were spied by a government agency using the pegasus spyware.

Many government leaders are being accused of using the malware, including Modi who is said to be using the spyware to spy on the Kashmiri Hurriyat Leadership as well as on those Kashmiri leaders who support India. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and many other governments are accused of using the pegasus spyware. Pakistan’s incumbent Prime Minister was also among those who were targeted by spyware.

The use of malware against opponents has started a new debate about human rights and the impacts of spyware on cybersecurity in the future. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International have also started to probe into the matter. On the other hand, Pakistan has also urged the United Nations to investigate the matter.

It is most likely that after the news about the Pegasus spyware, the cyber war among different states and non-state actors will gain momentum and the world will see a transition in the modes of warfare around the globe.

How Does Pegasus Spyware Work?

When we look at the working of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, it appears that the early versions of the spyware were first detected in 2016. These versions used text messages to install the software onto the cellphones of the targets. Once a recipient has clicked the link in the message, the software will automatically download onto his phone without being noticed.

The NSO has changed the method of installing the software in the phones of the targets as awareness among the phone users about clicking the suspicious links has limited the scope of a successful installation. The updated versions of the software have exploited the fault lines in the software commonly installed on mobile phones.

In 2019, the messaging service WhatsApp sued NSO on the charges of installing the pegasus spyware on almost 1400 cellphones. The software was installed by simply calling the target through WhatsApp; the software could clandestinely install itself on their phones, even if they never answered the call. It is said that the software has now breached Apple’s iMessage system and will have access to nearly one billion iPhones without being noticed by the owner.

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How Perilous Is the Spyware?

The developers of the pegasus spyware include the elite former members of the Israeli military and, possibly, they keep a close eye on the dark web where hackers sell information about the security vulnerabilities they have found in iOS and Android. The old versions of the cellphones are more vulnerable to spyware because they contain those software versions which had flaws.

The new updated software versions are comparatively less prone to the vulnerability of the malware but are still not completely secure. Pegasus spyware is said to be one of the most capable remote access tools. According to Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, it is just like putting your phone in someone else’s hands.

The spyware can be used to access the target’s photos, messages, eavesdrop on their calls, film them through their phone’s camera, and trace their location. He further states that the malware’s developers got better and better by the passage of time at hiding all the traces of the software which have made it difficult to confirm whether a particular phone has been targeted or not.

This made it unpredictable to know how many people had the software installed in their phones, but some reports by international media state that more than 50000 devices had been identified as being of interest to NSO clients. The spyware can also be used by terrorist organizations in the future but the NSO Group states that the software can’t be traced back to the government using it which is an imperative feature for covert operations.

It enables the governments to spy on their citizens. As per the company, the role of its product is to assist government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to meet the challenges of encryption during terrorism and criminal investigations. According to a media report, the developer company states that it works only with the government agencies and it will cut off the government agency’s access to the spyware if it finds evidence of abuse.

The company also showed its transparency report to substantiate that it has done that before. However, international human rights bodies like Amnesty International are not happy with the spyware and maintain that the malware is being used by oppressive governments where governmental agencies are capable of being trusted.

According to experts, it is just as difficult to identify the installation of malware in a device as it is difficult to assure its removal. The spyware can be removed by just rebooting the phone if it is installed in the memory of the phone. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to remove it if the malware is installed on the hardware of the phone.

Which Countries are Alleged to Use the Pegasus Spyware?

Until now, it is not sure how many agencies and governments have been using the spyware. However, there is a list of 50,000 numbers circulating around, and the reports are claiming that these numbers were possibly the targets of the software. The Pegasus Project, a coalition of news outlets, including Le Monde, The Washington Post, and The Guardian behind the reporting of the spyware, analyzed the numbers of this list and found that more than 1,000 numbers must be off-limits to governmental spying – as per the standards of the NSO group.

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This list of off-limits includes 3 presidents, a king, 10 prime ministers, 85 human rights activists, and 189 journalists. This delineates that the claim of the NSO group about only assisting the governments against terrorists is a mere fallacy. As per reports, at least 10 governments are believed to be clients of Pegasus, including India, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

The phone numbers in the leaked list span 45 countries – including Pakistan, where the phone number of Prime Minister Imran Khan once used was also targeted. As per the reports of the members of the Pegasus Project, the list includes presidents of Iraq, France, and South Africa, the prime ministers of Pakistan, Egypt, and Morocco, along with 7 former prime ministers and the king of Morocco.

Interestingly, the Moroccan king was not the only royalty on the list, a princess from Dubai was also added along with some of her friends, as she was seeking political asylum. She failed in her attempt as she was allegedly caught by the armed commandos while trying to escape UAE. Furthermore, among other numbers on the list, the number of Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancé was also found.

In India alone, more than 1,000 cell numbers were selected as possibly of interest to clients of the Israeli NSO Group. The list shared by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism organization, revealed the identities of the people targeted; more than 300 of those numbers were in India which includes politicians, businessmen, dozens of journalists, and even two ministers of the incumbent government.

Rahul Gandhi, the main rival of the Modi government, is also among the targeted people in India, sparking outrage in India against the Modi government. The Indian Prime Minister Modi has been accused of committing treason for spying on Indian security forces, the judiciary, opposition leaders, cabinet members, journalists, and other activists through a foreign country’s spyware.

These accusations were made by the spokesman of Congress, Randeep Surjewala, at a press conference in New Delhi. At the foreign level, India is also alleged to spy on the ambassador to India from Afghanistan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nepal. Reacting to these reports, the newly inducted BJP Minister, Ashwini Vaishnav, dismissed the reports as nothing but an attempt to malign the well-established institutions and democracy of India.

India has also targeted Kashmiri leaders who are working for gaining their fundamental human rights and freedom as well as those who conform with the Indian policies including Mehbooba Mufti’s family members. Among the Kashmiri Hurriyat (Freedom) leaders Bilal Lone, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Tariq Bukhari, Syed Naseem Gillani, Waqar Bhatti, and Zaffar Akbar Bhatt are included.

The two family members of Mehbooba Mufti were added to the surveillance list when she was the chief minister of the Indian Illegally Occupied Kashmir (IIOK) as per the report of The Wire. Although these accusations are denied by the Indian government, the truth will come out after the complete investigation of the matter by international organizations.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office has condemned the Indian state-sponsored perennial and widespread surveillance and espionage operations. The Foreign Office also stated that “the world has seen the true face of the so-called Indian ‘democracy’ when the reports of the EU Disinfo Lab, Indian Chronicle, surfaced earlier last year.

Furthermore, it stated that “keeping a clandestine tab on dissenting voices is a long-standing textbook ploy of the RSS-BJP regime to commit human rights atrocities in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) and peddle disinformation against Pakistan.” The Foreign Office also stated that it is closely following the revelations and will bring the matter to the attention of relevant international forums.

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The Foreign Office has called the relevant UN bodies to probe into the matter and hold the Indian perpetrators accountable. The revelations have also unearthed the fact that the pegasus spyware was also used by the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman to hack the phone of the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon.

According to The Guardian’s report, a malicious message was sent to Jeff Bezos from the personal account of Muhammad bin Salman. The malicious text infiltrated Jeff Bezos’ phone according to the result of the digital forensic analysis.

Future of Cyber Security

The revelation of the Pegasus spyware being used by several international governments has raised concerns about cybersecurity among the masses as well as governments. The traditional modes of warfare have already changed, and the 21st century can be regarded as an era of hybrid warfare. The development of nuclear weapons has decreased the probability of direct confrontation.

It is most likely that after the revelation of Pegasus malware, more governments, as well as terrorist organizations, will try to use such spying apps to achieve their goals. The use of such technology by terrorist organizations will prove catastrophic for the world, but under the given circumstances, it seems unlikely that they will not modernize their war tactics.

Similarly, the same will be used by governments to weaken or threaten other states. The attacks of Indian hackers on Pakistan’s official websites and the same by Pakistani hackers are well known, but after the revelation of such facts, it is most likely that the use of spyware will increase up to an unprecedented level.

China already uses a similar kind of spyware against the Uyghur Muslims to trace their activities on their devices. This is a sheer violation of fundamental human rights, but the given circumstances depict that such violations will increase in the future. Unfortunately, the trend of spying on journalists will not stop instead, it will see an unprecedented surge in the future as the world order will face a behemoth change under Chinese supremacy.

Similarly, there are many countries like the United States of America, India, and France where a clandestine authoritarian establishment holds the reigns of the government under the veneer of democracy and liberal values. Such states always try to hide their true face from being revealed and they construct the public opinion in their favor through media. This is only possible by spying on journalists and making them do what the state wants one way or the other.

Hence, it is unlikely that the espionage of journalists is ever going to stop. Similarly, the dominant governments all around the world try to suppress anti-government leaders, their movements, and those who seek independence – just like Kashmir and Palestine. This, too, will increase the use of spyware apps by the governments in the future.

Furthermore, the governments will try to coerce other states by using such malware. So, it will be cogent to say that espionage apps will become a more efficient and crucial tool of warfare in the future.

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